I hate ye.” Iona had stood with her spine straight, staring at her mother with so much hatred in her pale-blue eyes that they sparkled. “I truly do. I canna forgive ye if ye make me do this.” “Nae, ye dinna hate me.” Her mother shook her head. Her brown curls, a trait Iona had inherited, bounced with the movement. “I love ye, child.” The door had then closed, prompting Iona’s mad dash from the castle’s grey walls. Iona stormed from the castle entrance as though there were lightning bolts at her feet. Each step across the solid ground and the undulating path could have been a crack of thunder. She had never felt such ire before, such consuming anger; she was well aware anyone who watched her path from the castle windows probably likened her to an angry tot, yet she did not care. Her mind was too consumed with her fury to consider what others thought. Her mass of brown curls streamed behind her head as the wind buffeted through the valley below the castle, up the hill and around her short body. She braced herself against the full gale and marched on, impervious to the wind’s power, and determined not to return to the castle for the rest of the day despite the weather.
I canna marry him. The same thought ran through her head repetitively as she paced up and down. Her parents, the illustrious Laird Jonathan and Lady Myriam Lloyd of the Stewart Clan, wanted her to wed. Not only to wed, but at such a ridiculously young age, only just having reached her six-and-tenth year. Her father took little interest in any complaints she had, he saw the arrangement for what it was. A treaty for an ally. The Laird of the Stewart Clan it seemed had brokered a deal with the Laird of the Murray Clan. She was to marry the son and heir. When the death of her own father eventually came, this same man would inherit her father’s title as well as his own father’s. A Laird of both the Stewarts and the Murrays? Impossible.
The whole idea was ridiculous and destroyed hundreds of years of rivalry. At that moment, her head was too full of rage to even remember the boy’s name. Daniel Fuller, wasnae it? Or David? She had never met the boy and had heard little of him. I canna marry him. She turned her eyes back to Garth Castle, her home. The tall grey stone structure towered into the sky of blue and white clouds, with turrets and so many tall windows she could not count them. Behind the grey castle, as though it were a crown for the building itself, was a bank of trees, their glowing green leaves made the pale stone shine even more in the sun. Its height and breadth were both imposing and magnificent. In all her life, Iona had never seen such a fine and grand building. Beyond the banks of the hill, the terrain melded away into a valley, down to the lock at the bottom of the hill.
The surrounding land was as equally impressive and magical as the castle itself. It disgusted her to think Garth could not belong to her. It would have to pass to the Fuller boy instead. Her future husband. She grasped at her hand; her mirth had returned with all of its volcanic force as she took hold of the ring on her finger. It had been a gift from her parents some years ago – it was a rare emerald, with a sharp scratch of bright red through the center. Each woman in the Stewart Lairdship had worn the ring and her mother had thought it time it passed to her. It was reminiscent of their clan colors and no other stone like it existed in this world. She snatched it from her finger, fueled by all the anger at the pressure of the Stewart Clan. They want me to marry a lad I dinna ken.
To give me land, me home, me body to a stranger. The thought of having to give it all up was gut wrenching. She wanted nothing more than to be rid of her parents’ expectations. She threw the ring at the ground, desperate to be away from it. It bounced against the earth, lodging itself in some chosen hiding place far away from her view. The image of her mother saying she loved her tore through her anger. Had her ire been a blanket, her mother’s words would have created a rip in its existence, shaking her conviction. She opened her eyes and searched the ground, suddenly desperate to retrieve her mother’s emerald. It was too cruel to throw it away. She dropped to her knees, sullying the satin petticoat she wore with soil and grass stains as she scrambled to find it.
She crawled for a few minutes until she found the ring lodged by the roots of an oak tree, glinting in the sunlight. She cradled herself within the roots as she picked up the ring and attempted to remove the dirt from the gold band and green gem. It took a few minutes; she abandoned the hope to clean it with her now dirtied fingers and wiped the jewel on her petticoat instead. Slowly, she replaced the ring to her soiled finger, watching it shine in the sunlight with a heavy frown. A sudden scream tore up from the castle. Her head snapped around from the oak roots, turning back to the daunting image of the castle towering over the estate at the top of the hill. The one scream was joined by others – a guttural chorus of fear erupted from behind the windows. Iona hurried forward from the oak’s roots, directing her steps up the hill as the screams continued. Some guttural and deep, belonging to men, others shrill and high-pitched. The sound shook Iona to her bones.
A cacophony of screams and calls for help erupted, as though a volcano of screams had shaken free from the center of the castle. People were now sprinting clear of the castle. A window was smashed, and servants were climbing from the hole created, clambering out into the grounds, and running free. What is happenin’? Iona felt fear clinging at her shoulders, as though it were a monster from the depths of the loch far behind her, trying to drag her back down the hill. She fought the fear, tried to shake it from her body as she hurried up the hill, clutching at the blades of grass to aid her ascent. There was smoke, billowing wildly from the chimneys and windows. The screams grew greater and as Iona neared, she started to discern individual cries. “Fire!” “Did ye see how it started?” The fire blew out one of the windows, the glass smashed to the ground as the orange flames crawled through the gap, and the grey stone wall around it. As Iona reached the softening camber of the hill, she stood upright and bolted forward, sprinting as fast as she could. She frantically searched the faces – servants, maids, guards…her parents were not there, neither were Laird and Lady Fuller.
Gasping for air, she came to a stop as a familiar face ran forward. It was Siona. Her friend, companion, and governess. Her long red hair was wild, her normally pale cheeks were bright pink and there were soot marks across her clothes and face. “Siona!” Iona grabbed hold of the woman’s arms, as they reached out to each other, clutching at each other’s elbows. “Are ye all right?” “Aye, fine,” Siona replied though the soot marks were splattered across her cheeks. “A fire,” she tried to explain, panting as she frantically gathered her thoughts. “We dinna ken how it started.” “Me parents.” Iona shook Siona, desperate for news.
“Have ye seen them?” Siona did not reply, she merely stared back, realizing the weight of her words. “Siona!” Iona shook her again. “Tell me ye’ve seen them!” “Nae. I havenae.” Siona’s words were soft, barely audible above the cries. Iona pushed away from her friend, turning in a panicked circle as she searched the crowd of faces. “Maither!” She ran among them, desperate for any sign. “Faither!” “Iona! They arenae here,” Siona was behind her, following her path and every move. “Are they in there?” Iona came to a sudden stop, her gaze casting back to the castle. The fire had grown worse.
Nae. This canna be real. Smoke was billowing from most of the open windows, seeping through the closed ones too. It formed a black cloud above the grey walls, circling as though cast by a demon or witch. Flames danced beyond the closed windows. Embers of red and orange shining through the glass. “Maither!” Iona felt the desperate need to be inside the castle. She had to get them out. She tore forward, but Siona’s arms were on her, dragging her back. “Let me go.
” “Ye canna go in there, Iona, listen to me,” Siona’s reasonable words could not break through her haze. As though a mist of red had descended, her old anger had turned into a pure monster of fear. “I can. Let me go,” she pushed her friend off and ran back toward the castle again. “Maither! Faither!” She scrambled around the side of the house, determined to find a door and barge her way inside to pull her mother from the flames, but as she barreled forward, merely steps away from the front door, she was tackled to the ground. She screamed as the sudden weight was lifted from her. It was Siona and two other maids. They all grabbed at her arms and dragged her back away from the door. Iona was small, even for her age, their advanced height and greater number meant she stood little chance of fighting them off. “What are ye doin’? Let me go!” She kicked out at them desperate to be free.
“I canna do it,” Siona was crying. Tears streaked her pink cheeks as she tussled with Iona, pulling her away. “Ye go in there and ye’re running to death’s hands themselves. I’m sorry, lass. I canna let ye do it.” “Nae!” she screamed, feeling her feet make contact and strike one of the other maid’s hands. The girl squealed and let go, but it was not enough. Just as Iona scrambled to her feet, Siona grabbed her arms, pinned them to her waist, and pushed her away from the door. “I dinna want to see ye die too.” The thought her parents were already dead created a depth of fear Iona had not thought possible.
Nae. They canna be dead. She sank to her knees. Siona stood in front of her, refusing to let her stand again. Past Siona’s head, the fire raged on and the crowd continued to panic. “Laird an’ Lady Lloyd. Do ye think?” “What else? The Laird an’ Lady of the Murray Clan too.” There were screams inside the castle. Iona winced as she listened. They could have been her parents, they could have been servants, she could not differentiate the voices when they were screaming in such anguish and the sound itself was being drowned in the angry bellows of the fire.
Tears pooled in Iona’s eyes as the heat of the fire grew worse. The cloud above the castle had now grown so dark and large, it masked the view of the trees beyond. The once-grand turrets were hidden, the grey stone walls were turning black, and the whole building glowed orange and red. “It canna be.” Iona gasped as tears took her body. “Nae. It canna happen.” How had a fire started? They had never had a fire before. The mere idea of it was a surprise, unfathomable even. Her father kept the local militia’s gun powder and weapons inside the castle.
It was possible a fire had started in the storeroom. The thought of the gun powder and an impending possibility shook Iona. She could not give up now. She jumped to her feet – the sudden action surprised her captors. One of the maids jumped away and Siona attempted to hold her back, but Iona kicked out at her, knocking the woman to the ground. “Maither!” Iona screamed again as she barreled toward the door. “Iona! Come back!” “Iona!” “Child!” Siona’s voice and a cacophony of others begged her to return, but she ignored them all. She reached for the front door, her hand about to clasp the heavy iron handle when she felt the explosion.